Monday, November 26, 2007

There but for the grace of God...

As a very innocent 19 year old, coming back from an evening with friends, I was once mauled by a stranger on a train. Nearly forty years later I can still remember the feeling as he leant over me and put his hand on my breast. I screamed and ran out of the compartment into the next carriage, asking for help.

Hardly anyone even looked up - those who did sniffed disapprovingly. When I pleaded for someone to go back into the compartment and fetch my bag and coat, one man - old enough to be my father - obliged, but grumbled as he did so. I slowly realised from the mutters around me that my fellow passengers thought that I was to blame for what had happened - though in my innocence, I actually couldn't understand why. I left the train weeping.

I tell this story not for sympathy, but to illustrate the fact that society forty years ago made completely unwarranted assumptions about sexual attack. I had not been drinking heavily (one glass of wine), nor was I outrageously dressed (perfectly decent shorts, in an age where everyone wore them). Yet the assumption of my fellow travellers was that I had 'asked' to have a total stranger come across and put his hand on my breast.

I also tell this story to point up the fact that forty years on, sadly not much has changed. The announcement this week that juries are to be given information packs to counter 'rape myths' highlights the fact that we still as a society believe those myths. The stories of female binge drinking, the media hype on promiscuous sex - all of these mean that as a society we think that women (and men, for the victims of sexual assault are not unilaterally female) are living wild irresponsible lives and that therefore they are to blame for anything that happens to them.

My own experience forty years ago - and my current knowledge of the young people I regularly mix with, and hear from through my columns - is the opposite. Yes, there are exceptions, yes youth is a time for pushing the boundaries. It was ever so. But in many ways, young people are more aware nowadays, if anything more responsible.

And in any case, that isn't the point. It was the man who crossed the train compartment and put his hand on my breast who was at fault, not the 19-year old me travelling home on the train. It is the predator, male or female who is at fault, not their prey. Attackers have a choice to do right or wrong, however vulnerable their victims are. By claiming that the victims 'invite' the attack we muddy the waters, offer excuses, let wrong-doers off the hook. We also insult the vast majority of normal, decent men by suggesting that any male who sees a short skirt is automatically and excusably inflamed to rape, that any male who sees an inebriated woman is inevitably and forgivably driven to abuse. The result? The conviction rate for rape in the UK is currently 6% and 40% of adults who are raped tell no one.

Which is why I am delighted that the legal system is in the process of pointing out all the above to those who make crucial decisions in court cases.

Now all we need to do is to convince the rest of society, and we will at last - forty years after my 'little scare' - be getting somewhere.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sorry, talking about sex again...

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm currently working hard down the salt mines rewriting a Classic Sex Book. My friends, tolerant as they are, have for the past few months accepted my heavy workload - but have never been able to resist responding to my alibi for not coming out to play with comments like "working on the sex book - is that theory, or practice???".

I know such comments are always underpinned by great good humour - but I'm also aware that even in our current society, it's a source of such humour to suggest that anyone over the age of 25 is actually doing more than just dreaming of sex. Passion, the media tells and shows us, is reserved for the young and beautiful. Which is why, a few weeks ago, one of my blog posts highlighted recent research showing that a high proportion of over 70s are still swinging from the chandeliers.

I'm delighted today to report some qualitative anecdotes to add to that quantitative evidence. A new book - Over the Hill and Betwen the Sheets: Sex, Love and Lust in Middle Age - is a collection of personal stories edited by Gail Belsky. And the book is a gem of tales both passionate and moving, not only of how lust was rediscovered through new relationships in midlife, but how it was regained in established couples for whom time, children and the daily grind had all but extinguished desire.

I deeply believe - through personal experience as well as professional expertise - that sex can both last and improve over time; but it's nice to see other accounts confirm thatin print. All the more ammunition for when my rewrite of The Sex Book is published and I find myself defending the right not only of twenty-somethings but also ninety-somethings to have a fulfilling and adventurous love life.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Shopping better than sex? I don't think so...

No, it's a long way from academic research. But the latest 'reader survey' from a woman's magazine - in this case, First - still interests me.

Because it blows out of the water many of the more doom-laden ideas we currently have about relationships, and presents a much more optimistic view. Ninety-four per cent of wives said they were happily married, 72% of all women still fancied their partners, and only half said that their love lives had diminished after having children. For a Pollyanna like me, that's a nice result.

Where the survey wasn't so encouraging, however, was when it came to sex. Four in ten would rather go shopping than make love, and over a third said they would be happy in a sexless marriage. Which - while it gives the lie to the proposition that we are all sex-mad, and also supports the idea that love rather than passion is the key to a happy life - also seems rather sad to me. Sex is so wonderful that surely we should want it - and be putting energy into having it - throughout our lives.

No, sex is not compulsory and if a relationship doesn't include it, that doesn't mean that love is on the rocks. But sex is very wonderful - and absent it, we may well be missing out on a host of other benefits: affection, cuddles, physical proximity, eye contact and simply shared pleasure. If partners don't make love and don't want to, no problem; if they don't make love and want to, there is plenty of help available and actually, it works.

I don't usually include an advertising slot in this blog - but if you're reading this and your sex life is not what it could be, contact Relate right now...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Birth, contraception, bastardy...

Most of the end of last week was taken up with preparation for - and presentation at - a very nicely-put together conference run by the Journal of Hospital Medicine, who had decided they needed to inform their readers about family planning. High profile speakers like Profs James Trussell of Princeton and Kaye Wellings of the London School of Tropical Medicine sat alongside coalface presenters working at family planning organisations such as Brook.

The whole thing was utterly fascinating - hearing the latest updates on how women (and men) are making their choices, or failing to, as regards contraception, termination and sexual health. And I enjoyed making my own contribution - on the emotional underpinnings of contraceptive decisions and how these influence what people do. But what came across to me most, among all the medical-speak and pharma-slang, was just how concerned all the speakers and delegates were with the patients in their care. Throughout the whole conference there ran a real thread of warmth and compassion on every family planning issue; moving and heartwarming in the extreme.

There was also, for me, a curious juxtaposition. Only the previous evening I had gone to see the latest Royal Shakespeare King Lear, starring (and I do mean starring - despite the critical reviews it was a total tour de force) Ian McKellen. As I settled into my seat, my conference preparation at the forefront of my mind, one of the themes of the play totally hit the mark. Family love... parents... children... and yes, the issue of unwanted offspring that runs as a subplot to the whole play.

I loved Lear, and everything about it. But I became aware during the performance that I am very, very glad that I live in the present day and not the Shakespearean era. For nowadays we do have the choice of preventing unwanted conception. We do give women the right to choose. And if their choice is to give birth, then however much we may disagree with their decision or criticise the original conception, we do not now judge the offspring of non-wedlock birth as more - well, illegitimate - than those of in-wedlock birth. The care, support and compassion I experienced at the Family Planning Conference is the benchmark nowadays for health care - but it also reflects the lack of stigma in society around this whole issue.

In short, right thinking people nowadays do not call others 'bastards' because of the circumstances of their birth. Correctly and ethically, we judge them entirely on their merits.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sad, but true

Oh dear. My last blog post, about chlamydia, brought a sad and angry letter from a man who has had it. He seemed to think that I was being "sexist and ignorant" when I reported that one in ten men think that the condition is a flower.

But sorry, not my thoughts.

Instead the results of a study run by the British National Chlamydia Screening Programme; the research was published last week in a number of British national newspapers. I quoted this research not to attack men, but to highlight the whole issue and urge action.

And in this, I and my critic and I are utterly in agreement. What his post proves is absolutely true - that chlamydia is devastating on every level. We must all do all we can to improve the situation.

I'm sorry you are upset, sir, and I extend my sympathies for your illness.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Roses are red, violets are blue...

... but apparently 10% of men think that the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia is a flower. Oh dear. And this despite the fact that it can cause infertility in both genders.

Which is why I bounced with glee today on learning that a new initiative is to be launched to encourage chlamydia screening not only for women but also for men.

If you're a man reading this, check it out. If you're a woman, check it out and then tell your man.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Appearances can be deceptive...

I so love it when society's prejudices are undermined. As they surely were with today's report that a campaign to support licensed brothels has been launched by - wait for it - the Women's Institute.

We used to think that the WI was the breeding ground for traditional family values and conservative opinions. But actually, that organisation has always been at the forefront of supporting women - their website specifically mentions their mission as including "campaigning". And surely, surely, prostititutes need campaigning support from women worldwide and from all walks of life.

Well done the WI.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A very positive take on positive smears

As regular readers of my work will know, I'm a great supporter of cervical cancer issues. So at the end of last week I unhesitatingly trotted along to a charity gala run by Jo's Trust, the cervical cancer charity.

Now, in general, gala dinners per se can leave me cold; the business versions in particular can be stuffed full of cold fish of all kinds. Charity galas are always much better - full of good people willing to put their money where their mouths are.

But I have to say that the Jo's Trust gala took the biscuit for most fun event of the year if not the millenium-so-far. For a start, the guests were sparky - I sat next to (and tangoed with) one of the male contestants in this year's Strictly Come Dancing, while on my other side was a fascinating up and coming fashion designer. (I don't usually get overwhelmed by celeb-ness, but these people were genuinely nice.)

The entertainment too was sparky - some acrobats doing their stuff suspended from the ceiling, a troope of smiley carnival dancers, and a belting rock and roll singer. Touching too, especially consdering the gala focus, was the stunningly talented Capital Girls Choir - for we all realised that these were the women of the future, for whose cervical health we were raising money.

Most moving, however, was the after-dinner speech. Yes, I did say the after-dinner speech. Given by Jo's Trust organiser Pamela Morton, it literally brought tears to most people's eyes - including her own - as she talked about Jo's Trust women who were struggling with the disease, those who had won and those who, in the past year, had lost their fight.

Best of all, though, was the final point of Pamela's speech - where she described how only this week, the government has licensed for use with teenage girls the wonderful "cervical cancer vaccine" which protects against the HPV virus that triggers the cancer.

By attending and donating at the dinner we were, as Pamela pointed out, not only actively fighting fight for cervical health. Just as importantly, we were celebrating the most important breakthrough ever in that very fight.